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Avatar | The Viperwolf

In the Footsteps of:

The Viperwolf

PRF scientists followed a viperwolf pack for two months. This is their report from the field.

Scientists have spent years exploring the various biomes of the fauna-rich moon of Pandora, and have encountered thousands upon thousands of incredible species on land, at sea, and in the air. We’ve catalogued, tracked, and learned all we can about many of these animals, and we’re only scratching the surface.

Since the study of Pandoran fauna has been ongoing, it’s still early to start assigning “the fiercest,” “the humblest,” or other superlatives to the wildlife that’s been discovered. Yet we can all agree on one. Among the least understood animals on Pandora is the viperwolf.

The reason is twofold. First, the viperwolf is a dangerous apex predator, make no mistake. Among all discovered ground predators, a viperwolf pack is second only to the thanator. Animals of this intelligence and lethality often inspire fear more than a genuine desire to understand. Second, the viperwolf is extremely elusive. It is nocturnal and an expert at camouflage. Even though it travels in packs, if it doesn’t wish to be seen it simply will not be seen.

We wanted to learn more about these complicated creatures by studying them in the wild, so our scientists located a pack that patrols a territory in the vicinity of the Mo’ara Valley. Using non-lethal technology, members of the pack were tagged to help us keep track of them, and camera traps were set up throughout their territory — no small feat, since the average viperwolf hunting range can cover over 300 square kilometers. The below report is distilled from our initial data.

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Eyktan and Tsmukan

Our viperwolf pack consisted of 10 animals, four males and six females, one of which was pregnant at the beginning of our observation. Packs are often small, with a roughly balanced gender distribution. An alpha pair will set the pace, following their appetites, with the rest of the pack following suit. Although viperwolves are not strictly monogamous — an alpha male can breed any female in his pack — they tend to observe a rough pairing within pack structure.

Though the pack is tightknit and highly communicative (more on this below), viperwolves often test each other for the alpha position. In our first days, we witnessed a number of challenges between the alpha, whom we’ve called Eyktan (after the Na’vi word for “leader”), and a young male we named Tsmukan (“brother”); the challenges ranged from aggressive posturing to light grappling, almost playing. It could be Tsmukan bridling under another’s authority. But it could also signal a pack’s doubts about Eyktan’s leadership, suggesting that his time as alpha may be coming to a close.

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Hunting a Sturmbeest

On the third week of our observation, as though sensing a mounting internal challenge to his place, Eyktan led his pack on a daring hunt.

Like most predators, viperwolves are opportunistic hunters, preferring the most defenseless prey to more dangerous game. But their hunting techniques are so sophisticated that even large, well-defended animals have mostly to rely on luck once the attack starts. And for one aging sturmbeest, luck came up short.

The pack stalked the sturmbeest herd for the better part of two days, keeping well out of sight and downwind as the herd picked its way across a marsh at the edge of a forest. In the evening of the second day, they saw their chance: the herd was dawdling leaving a watering hole, spreading its numbers and leaving itself dangerously exposed.

What came next has rarely been observed by humans — and, to be fair, could only be observed by us with the aid of night-vision goggles. When approaching prey, a viperwolf will hug the ground so as to be nearly invisible, even to the trained eye. Its bioluminescent markings become one with the scenery. In this way, it can quite literally be at your feet by the time it decides to strike.

Additionally, the pack maintains constant communication with each other through a complex system of facial tics, bodily gestures, and vocalizations. With a low hiss from Eyktan, the entire pack would make a subtle shift in its trajectory toward the herd, as precisely as a school of fish.

We watched the pack move low toward the herd, targeting an old, slow-moving bull. As the main body of the herd had moved off by this point, there lacked sufficient numbers for a stampede (a highly effective defense against viperwolf attack). The remaining sturmbeests, picking up the scent and the sudden stillness in the marsh, bolted as the viperwolves were about to descend on them; the old bull charged the pack, dispersing it, but was attacked on all sides before it could marshal its strength for a second run.

Good news  — and a good meal — for the pack. Not-so-good news for Tsmukan, who once more saw his alpha chances placed just out of reach.

Taking to the Trees

In the second month of observation, the viperwolf pack established a forest den for the pregnant female. We named the mother-to-be Mawey, the Na’vi word for “calm,” since for all of our observation to that point she’d kept up with the pack, diligent and even-keeled despite her progressing condition. Now it was time to dig in and await the litter.

Keeping some in reserve to watch the den, the pack made sorties out to various parts of its territory and back. Viperwolves patrol their territory greedily, scent marking and guarding against any incursion — especially those of rival viperwolf packs. Occasionally packs will clash over territorial borders in what’s known as “intraspecific strife.”

For viperwolves, the hunt takes place on the ground — and above it, too. Because their paws, with opposable thumbs, are closer in nature to those of a primate than a canine, viperwolves are excellent tree climbers and do a great deal of hunting in the canopy, high above the forest floor. During this relatively sedentary period, we observed the pack make multiple coordinated attacks on prolemuris colonies in treetops near the den. Which is, perhaps, as much a form of territory protection as subsistence hunting: a popular theory is that the current stage of viperwolf evolution is at a midpoint between canine and primate. One day in the distant future they may take to the trees entirely.

Birth of a Litter, Death of a Rivalry

After a few days at the den, the viperwolves’ patrolling grew more insistent. Predators in the area — banshees, a thanator — were drawn off into the woods, away from Mawey, whose movements had become more and more restricted. Finally, she stopped moving altogether and assumed her position in the den.

With most of the pack present and standing guard, Mawey gave birth to six tiny cubs during their fourth day at the den. The cubs took their mother’s milk instantly, while Mawey herself consumed the placenta — a nutrient-rich meal for an animal whose condition disallowed hunting.

Though they are born helpless, the cubs will mature quickly. Within the first few months of life, they will be expected to join the hunt. Before half a year is out, they will have grown a full set of adult teeth and bulked up to half of their adult size. But until then, the pack will do its part to rear the cubs communally. In the days following the birth, as Mawey recovered, we watched as the non-breeding females in the pack produced milk for the cubs, and the males took turns  babysitting. As in hunting and patrolling, the pack behaved with genuine familial instinct.

One male who didn’t seem to enjoy the community spirit was Tsmukan. In the weeks following the successful raid on the sturmbeest herd, the young male’s stature in the pack began to decline. Eyktan sniped at him more openly now. Taking this as a cue, the pack started muscling him out of feedings, leaving him little but scraps. Conceivably, he could have transitioned into a full-time babysitting role, but this was probably too much for Tsmukan, who was still young. His choice: kill Eyktan outright or leave the pack.

One morning, as the pack rested in preparation for leaving the den and resuming its hunt, Tsmukan slipped away and disappeared into the forest. As a lone wolf, he will leave the pack’s territory for another — joining its ruling pack, building one of his own, or facing the myriad threats Pandora can summon every day for an animal fending for itself.

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What We Learned: Connection Is Key

It is impossible to understand the viperwolf independent of a pack. To really know this animal, you have to appreciate how pack connection is the center of its experience: everything that defines the viperwolf defines it as part of a group.

Yes he kills, but he kills in a group, and with a sophisticated array of tools for communicating with others. He also raises his cubs in a group, with the whole pack pitching in, raising a strong child so that the pack in turn becomes stronger. Even an upstart challenge to leadership can be viewed in terms of group strength: alphas must be challenged, because the weakness or negligence of an ineffective alpha puts the whole pack at risk. In this way, Tsukman can be seen to regard his pack, rather than himself; that he misjudged Eyktan is beside the point.

Connectedness makes the viperwolves both a deadly force and a devoted family.

And to be sure, this level of connectedness is the key to understanding not only the viperwolf, but all native life on Pandora. The Na’vi believe that Eywa connects every living thing into a web of experience, a system of interdependency, and if we take that as our model then perhaps the viperwolf — far from being the unthinking killer he’s often portrayed as — is really the exemplar of everything worthy about Pandora. More than the banshee or the thanator or the direhorse, icons all, it could be the viperwolf that represents Pandora best.